Janet Mock, as seen through Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Judith Butler’s careful consideration of trans individuals in relation to her theory of gender as an “act” brings me to the case of Janet Mock, a prominent trans woman who has garnered renown for her revealing, enlightening autobiography Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (though I must add that she is acclaimed for being a distinguished journalist in her own right, before her autobiography was released). In considering Mock, we must consider Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s views on “male homosocial desire”, which she says is “the radically disrupted continuum in our society between sexual and nonsexual male bonds” (709). The radical disruption that Sedgwick speaks of is caused by homophobia, as individuals engage in it to disrupt male bonds and maintain a patriarchy governed by heterosexual men. We must also consider Judith Butler’s main argument, the crux of which is this: “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed” (907). Gender is, according to Butler, an “act” (908). One is not merely a man or a woman but acts as either role to define their own gender. Mock’s experience as a trans woman reinforces Butler’s theory of gender through performance and appearance, and counters Sedgwick’s beliefs concerning the use of homophobia against strictly “male homosocial behavior”, as she finds her own ways to act as a woman and must fight against homophobia in her efforts to engage in female homosocial behavior.

Butler’s theory brings forward interesting intricacies concerning trans individuals, and she recognizes this: “Indeed, the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations” (907). Mock, for a long period of time, struggled to fully express her trans identity and find the best, most complete way to “act” her gender. This is best exemplified by her initial forays into the dating world, when she was dealing with the fine line concerning her appearance and the truth that she was attempting to conceal. In her autobiography, Mock details her first date with Adrian, a man whose “lustful gaze… further validated my womanhood” (158).  The date was a nervous affair for Mock, at least initially: “But as dinner progressed, my nerves subsided, and I fell into the groove of a girl on a date with a guy” (158). Therefore, we can see that “acting” a gender has much to do with environment and company. The quality of these conditions determine how the individual can best express their gender. This is reinforced by the fact that Mock’s definition of womanhood is derived from “watching the women in Dad’s life cook and cackle in the kitchen” (65).

As Mock’s life goes on, she embraces more apparent ways of expressing her movement across genders, as she starts a hormone treatment and begins dressing in a more feminine manner. She practically outright supports Butler’s theory concerning the importance of “acting” a gender, especially through her appearance: “I clutched tightly to my green Keroppi folders and my size-too-small jeans and my arched brows, and when I could grow my hair long enough, my side part. These elements, though small and insignificant to passersby, made up my girlhood, and I fought hard to ensure that they were seen” (124).

Mock’s emergence and eventual coming to comfort and normality as a woman was undermined by homophobia. Sedgwick argues that homophobia is used to balance and combat the “male homosocial desire”. In Mock’s case, however, she encounters homophobia in her efforts to engage with the “female homosocial desire”, as she wants to be a woman among women (709). This struggle is compounded by Mock’s father’s initial reaction to her exploring her gender identity, as he abandons his daughter and dismisses her life journey, saying that he would not support it. (He eventually comes around to reaffirm his unconditional love for Mock). Mock’s experience with her father speaks volumes of Sedgwick’s belief that “patriarchies structurally include homophobia”, if we are considering her father as a one-man patriarchy (698). How do you think Mock herself would interpret Sedgwick’s key theory concerning homophobia’s role against homosocial desire? She would obviously read Sedgwick’s work with great intrigue, to say the least.

Mock would read Butler’s work with intrigue, too. “My point is simply that one way in which this system of compulsory heterosexuality is reproduced and concealed is through the cultivation of bodies into discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions,” Butler writes (905). Mock agrees with Butler’s statement here, as she has felt automatically maligned by greater society for changing her bodies from its “natural” appearances to fulfill her non-heterosexual (and therefore non-“natural”) sexual desires. “It was a balancing act to express my femininity in a world that is hostile toward it and frames femininity as artifice and fake, in opposition to masculinity, which often represents ‘realness,’” Mock writes (124). What it would take for trans individuals to have their bodies and sexualities be defined as ‘natural’? Will it take a formal deconstruction of the word ‘natural’, or what it means?

The University

College is a place for learning. It’s a place for learning about chemistry, economics, art history, etc., but most of all it’s about learning how to find yourself. Right? That’s why so many people refer to college as the best years of their lives. And why is this? Because they were out of their parents’ homes? Sure. Because they were constantly around their friends? Why not. But because they were free individuals? Not quite.

Vanderbilt University is no exception when it comes to the subtle integration of discipline into college life, and it is certainly not exempt from its status as an Ideological State Apparatus. The feeling of freedom exists certainly. But is it warranted? Let us think first of the purpose of Vanderbilt and other universities. They exist, in theory, to serve as education institutions that seek to facilitate and encourage the growth of the minds of their student bodies, while simultaneously preparing their attendants for life in the workforce with respect to whatever career they may eventually come to choose. Right here, even at a concept so basic, we see that the implications of such an institution existing point to some deeper forces at work. Not necessarily sinister forces, mind you, but forces that may not be initially apparent in the mission statement. Like any school or university, Vanderbilt is what Althusser would call an Ideological State Apparatus. Students are educated here not only in the academic disciplines, but also in the practices and protocols of the ideology of the state, i.e. the USA, a capitalist republic. Education is sought to an end: employment, which is essential for proper function within a capitalist society. Students are also expected to behave in a manner fitting to budding productive capitalists, and allowed to take majors that teach western economic theory and give lessons in history according to the side of democracy. Aside from all this, the culture of the university is overwhelmingly capitalist; the atmosphere found at Vanderbilt is no doubt different from that of Moscow State University before 1991, what with “Vandy’s” traditional upper-middle class attire and frequent partying. The Vanderbilt experience is certainly academic, but the display of culture, whether deliberately chosen by the powers that be or not, says a lot about the nature of the University as a capitalist institution.

Then we come to the subject of how the university is kept from disorder. Any community this large must have some guidelines and rules in place to keep it from falling to total chaos. There a few notable examples of this: the honor code, residential advisors, and, of course, VUPD. The honor code is a rather obvious example of the Panoptic systems described by Foucalt; power that is visible but unverifiable. Every student signs the honor code as a freshman. Subsequently, every student is made aware of the penalties put in place should this code be broken. The entire premise of the code is made apparent in the name: honor. A somewhat vague term nowadays, but nevertheless, provocative. Nobody wants to be called dishonorable, and more importantly, nobody wants to suffer the consequences associated with these dishonorable activities. Thus, while in most cases, violations of the honor code could usually pass by undiscovered, so many students adhere to it. The factor of risk is always present. Each student knows that there exists a possibility that a member of the faculty, or even according to the honor code itself, another student could at any point during their violation discover them and turn them in for punishment. One cannot guarantee this discovery in most rational cases, but the fear is still there. Of course, in addition to this fear of an imperceptible observer, students themselves are used by the system so that set observers are not even necessary: the student begins to observe himself. This is the concept of honor. The punishments dictated by professors and other faculty are supplemented by the punishment that the cheater gives himself (in at least some cases). I am referring, of course, to guilt. Now, there are more obvious structures in place as well, and I made reference to both the RA staff and VUPD earlier. These two are fairly similar. In line with the panoptic systems that Foucalt argues are the foundation for western society and the root of the west’s economic success, enforcement staff on Vanderbilt’s campus serve to similar ends. It is an accepted deduction that drunkeness and otherwise risky or dangerous activities decrease the productivity of students. Punishments for these situations are communicated to everyone. Students know that they are watched and accountable for their actions. Nobody knows when a party will be busted or when some “late-night nausea” can be reported by an RA. Now this system is not perfect, as many still go about as if they were invincible, but the concept remains the same.

Ultimately, once could see Vanderbilt as both an instrument to the larger American soceity, and a society in and of itself. It functions not only as an institution for training the capitalists of tomorrow, but also a disciplinary society in line with Foucalt’s explanations of panopticism and efficiency.

The Aura and the Apple

Apple is a company that displays rather blatantly everything Benjamin says about “art” and its practical usage in the modern age, while simultaneously having this usage slipping under the radar of most consumers. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin states that at this point in human history, with the advent of film and photography, all art is used for a political end which means it is essentailly ripped of its aura or pure artistic value. His arguments state that reproductability of these contemporary forms of art removes any authenticity that could be found in unique works, like the Venus de Milo, or ancient mosaics. It then follows, according to him, that this new sort of “art for the masses” will and is used for political ends, and he compares the two extreme ends of the political spectrum. Fascism seeks to use this “art” to give the masses some form of self-expression and artistic individuality without actually raising any of them to a higher level, while communism uses this art for propaganda and supposed informing of the proper ideology of the party and glorification of the worker.

Apple has become a very popular brand within the last few years. Look around and you’ll probably see at least one person with an iPhone in their hand or a MacBook in their lap. The designs are always sleek, shiny, and sexy. While others still choose to remain loyal to their other brands (behavior that is a whole other can of worms in its own right), it seems that the preferred product of a large demographic remains the same: people like Apple.

But why? If one examines the performance of these devices, they work no better than their PC or android counterparts. Sure the aesthetic is eye-catching, but does that really justify the huge price difference between devices? And while Apple certainly claims that each new update “changes everything” or is an absolute “technological innovation,” other than a few minor updates, a device that comes out a year prior to another is not at all noticeably inferior. Adding a letter to the name of something does not make its previous iteration irrelevant, for sure.

Yet we keep coming back to this brainchild of the late Steve Jobs. We throw our time and money to the smug employees of overcrowded Apple Stores (which to someone from about 30 years earlier is not at all what the name suggests). And for what?

The answer is fairly simple and two-pronged: 1) the company is exploiting the capitalist system and the ignorance of the masses (Marx would have a field day here) and 2) the aesthetic, artistic appeal or these products, largely used by people who consider themselves artists, or at least artistic, is used by not a government per se, but a corporation in order to further its agenda.

The first part of the answer to the Apple conundrum is straightforward and largely based in the principle of manufactured demand. Very briefly I will discuss my opinion on this company: I do not very much like Apple, but have immense respect for them as a company, the same way I do for Rockefeller, Carnegie, or anyone else who can successfully procure that much wealth for themselves through the capitalist system. While their goal is certainly not the most noble, their triumph in the execution of their plans is not an easy one. There is a market for a certain product i.e. Apple technology. The firm producing it uses advertising and misleading jargon in order to make the consumers think they need (demand) the product at a level higher than the real market equilibrium would suggest. This increase in demand, while artificial i.e. not based on actual preferences and the utility of the consuming agent, still has very real effects. Quantities consumed will rise, and so will prices. This explains why people seem to need every single new upgrade to their phones or laptops or tablets or giant robot pencils or what have you. But how is this demand manufactured? How is the system of true labor cost vis a vis Marx’s Capital exploited?

The answer to these questions lies in Benjamin’s work. Due to the lack of instantly recognizable fascist imagery, as well as Marx’s and Benjamin’s communist leanings, I chose to use to the hammer and sickle of the USSR in conjunction with the Apple logo, but let us be assured that for our purposes the company is very much fascist, according to Benjamin. Apple has a very large target audience: everyone. One could call this “everyone” the masses, or if Apple fell on the other side of the spectrum, the proletariat. What Apple markets most of its merchandise on is the creative potential that one can unlock through its devices. They are appealing to the mass’ sense of individuality and expression. But these devices are nothing special; they themsleves are no works of art that would inspire the wonder of other civilizations (other than through their technological merit). The scale on which they are produced is truly grand, and exploitation of labor aside, their widespread propagation, at least according to Benjamin, leaves these machines, however pretty to look at, devoid of any aura.We are then left with a political tool. Apple makes lots of cheap products, and sells them through deceptive marketing, displaying images of art and aestheticism, in order to make absurd levels of profit.

So while the services that Apple provides certainly serve a function (possibly another argument as to their lack of artistic merit), and do benefit some people, their value artistically as far as aura goes is negligible, and their usage of this quasi art is indicative of their fascist tendencies.